Category Archives: Donald Westlake novels

Enconium: Mr. Dortmunder and Oleg, Часть третья (Part 3)

KIC Image 0022

They all trooped in, to view the unprecedented sight of Tiny in two aprons, overlapping, with a meat cleaver in one hand and a long wooden spoon in the other, with a lot of big pots and pans hissing and snarling on the stove.  What he looked mostly like was some darker version of Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen.  “Soup’s on at six,” he told them.

I wish I knew more about Oleg Zverkov.  I wish I could read testimonials to him (that would be in Russian), learn what he loved about the Dortmunder novels, and what else he loved besides them, get something of the tenor of his personality, the cut of his jib.

I wish he’d been one of my regulars in the comments section, back when I was reviewing the Dortmunders, giving us the Russian take on these books (Ray Garraty being more of a Parker kind of guy.)  I wish we could have swapped insights, interpretations, interests.  I wish most of all that Mr. Westlake himself could have lived to see these books, to hold them in his hands (and I would have made damn sure that happened).  But alas.  Not to be.

Westlake novels are, most of all, about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  About individuals engaged in an open-ended process of self-discovery.  And thus, they attract readers who are themselves ordinary, yet capable of the extraordinary, and who are engaged in that process themselves.  Seeing the comedy and tragedy of life in equal measure, appreciating both, refusing to let one overwhelm the other.

And why, pray tell, should we not assume that such people exist everywhere, in every nation of the earth?  Nations as populous as China,  as expansive as Russia, as untamed as Brazil, as miniscule as Anguilla, as remote as Papua New Guinea.  This blog has been visited by one hundred and fifty-four such nations as of today.  The only major land masses I’m missing are Antarctica and Greenland.  I’ve got readers on lots of little islands too (Westlake would have liked that.)

And you know, wherever there are people, there are bosses, seeking to control them.  There are organization men, seeking to be controlled.  There are rich pricks, looking to buy us on the cheap.  And there are those who just don’t fit any of the available molds, who don’t belong anywhere, but would like to find some way they could, without selling themselves on the cheap.

And it’s to that last group that Westlake sings most passionately, telling them they’re not alone.  That they can prevail.  If only by dint of sheer persistence, self-knowledge, and pooling their diverse skills.  You can make a sound in this world.  You can be someone to reckon with.  Oleg was one of those.  That I know.

But this is an enconium.  Not precisely the same thing as a eulogy.  Nothing at all like an obituary.  So let’s finish looking at the work to which he gave his last full measure of devotion, and which will be completed, in spite of his departure.

That’s the good news.  Here’s the other kind.  Title page and end papers.

KIC Image 0004

(You know, I’m guessing PC is never going to be a thing in Russia.)

KIC Image 0005

Hide? Where? Nowhere. The shelves were packed full and high. If this were a traditional department store, he could at least try to pretend to be a mannequin in the men’s clothing section, but these discount places were too cheap to have full entire mannequins. They had mannequins that consisted of just enough body to drape the displayed clothing on.

Pretending to be a headless and armless mannequin was just a little too far beyond Dortmunder’s histrionic capabilities. He looked around, hoping at least to see something soft to bang his head against while panicking, and noticed he was just one aisle over from the little line of specialty shops, the pharmacy and the hair salon and the video rental and the optician.

The optician.

Could this possibly be a plan that had suddenly blossomed like a cold sore in Dortmunder’s brain? Probably not, but it would have to do.

As the individual all those legislators most specifically had in mind when they enacted their three-strikes-you’re-out life-imprisonment laws, Dortmunder felt that any plan, however loosely basted together, had to be better than simple surrender. His wallet tonight contained several dubious IDs, including somebody’s credit card, so, for almost the first time in his life, he made use of a credit card in a discount store, swiping it down the line between door and jamb leading to the optician’s office, forcing the striker back far enough so he could push open the glass door in the glass wall and enter.

It wasn’t until after the door snicked shut again behind him that he realized there were no knobs or latches on its inside. This door could only be opened or closed or locked or unlocked from the outside, because the fire laws required it to be propped open anytime the place was open for business.

Trapped! he thought, but then he thought, wait a second. This just adds whadayacallit. Verisimilitude. Unless that’s the color.

The optician’s shop was broad and narrow, with the front glass wall facing the rest of Speedshop, plus white walls at sides and back, liberally decorated with mirrors and with color photographs of handsome people with bad eyesight.

(No mention of any of these beauteous four-eyed people being stereotypically coiffed  Native Americans, nor would they have been in 2001, but nice foreshadowing.  Also product placement.  I’d have awarded extra points for Foster Grants, but that gag wouldn’t play in Petrovka, kemosabe.)

KIC Image 0006

KIC Image 0007

KIC Image 0008

The three were more than an odd couple; they were an odd trio. Little Feather, the former showgirl, Native American Indian, was beautiful in a chiseled-granite sort of way, as though her mother were Pocahontas and her father Mount Rushmore. Irwin Gabel, the disgraced university professor, was tall and bony and mostly shoulder blades and Adam’s apple, with an aggrieved and sneering look that used to work wonders in the classroom but was less useful in the world at large.

As for Guilderpost, the mastermind looked mostly like a mastermind: portly, dignified, white hair in waves above a distinguished pale forehead. He went in for three-piece suits, and was often the only person in a given state wearing a vest. He’d given up his mustache some years ago, when it turned gray, because it made him look like a child molester, which he certainly was not; however, he did look like a man who used to have a mustache, with some indefinable nakedness between the bottom of his fleshy nose and the top of his fleshy lip. He brushed this area from time to time with the side of his forefinger, exactly as though the mustache were still there.

(I can’t quibble in the least regarding Guilderpost and Gabel.  Little Feather?   Ehhhhh….  women are under-represented in these illustrations.  One might argue they’re under-represented in the novels, but that’s another subject.)

KIC Image 0011

“Give me the flashlight,” Geerome said, and a huge white light suddenly glared all over them. Benny, wide-eyed, astounded, terrified, could still make out every crumb of dirt on the cheeks of Geerome and Herbie, the light was that bright, that intense.

And so was the voice. It came from a bullhorn, and it sounded like the voice of God, and it said, “Freeze. Stop right where you are.”

They froze; well, they were already frozen. The three Indian lads standing in a row in the grave squinted into the glare, and out of it, like a scene in a science-fiction movie, came a lot of people in dark blue uniforms. Policemen. New York City policemen.

KIC Image 0012

(Ho ho ho.  Merry Heistmas.  The Perfect Crime, at last.)

KIC Image 0013

(Villainy receives its just retribution.  From other villains, but that’s nitpicking.)

KIC Image 0014

Just one more.  And so fittingly, it happens to be—

KIC Image 0015

KIC Image 0016

KIC Image 0017

The thing is, I started in life as a stunt driver.”

Anne Marie, surprised, said, “Really?”

“You may have seen the one,” Chester said, “where the guy’s escaping in the car, they’re after him, the street becomes an alleyway, too narrow for the car, he angles sharp right, bumps the right wheels up on the curb, spins sharp left, the car’s up on two left wheels, he goes down the alley at a diagonal, drops onto four wheels where it widens out again, ta-ran-ta-rah.”

“Wow,” Anne Marie said.

“That was me,” Chester told her. “We gotta do it in one take or otherwise I’m gonna cream the car against some very stone buildings. I liked that life.”

(I must confess, I kind of like that there’s not a single picture of Anne Marie in any of these books.  Though I’ve only seen two of J.C., and one of May.  None of Gladys Murch.  Maybe in some of the earlier volumes I don’t have.  I think we can say women are better represented in Westlake’s fiction than they are in these books.  Though rich blondes in hot cars do pretty well.  Or do I mean that the other way around?)

KIC Image 0018

KIC Image 0019

(This image I could have done without.)

KIC Image 0020

(Not this one, though.)

KIC Image 0021

KIC Image 0023

“The shoes, Rumsey.”

He blinked at them. There they were, neatly placed on the floor, midway down the corridor on the right. “I didn’t do that, mum.”

“Well, of course not, Rumsey.” Now she clearly didn’t know what to think. “Mr. Hall put them out there.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t you know why, Rumsey?”

“Take them to the shoe repair?”

“Rumsey, I can’t believe you have been a butler for—”

“We never had nothing about shoes at the embassy, mum.”

She looked skeptical. “Who polished the ambassador’s shoes?”

In that instant, he got it. The boss puts the shoes in the corridor; the butler mouses through, later at night, to take them away to his pantry and polish them; then the butler brings them back and puts them where he found them, only now gleaming like bowling balls. So why hadn’t he known that? And who did polish the ambassador’s shoes?

“His orderly, mum,” Dortmunder said, floundering for the word. “Military orderly. All that sort of thing. Tie bow ties, polish shoes, all that. Specialist, mum.”

“Well, that’s certainly a different way to do things,” she said. “But we may never understand the eastern Europeans. Somehow, it’s all Transylvania, all the time.”

“Yes, mum.”

“Well, do them now,” she said, with a graceful gesture shoeward. “And assure Mr. Hall you’ll understand your duties much better from this point forward.”

“I will, mum,” Dortmunder said.

Buddy leaped forward, raising the sack, as Mark (green ski mask, with elks) and Ace (Lone Ranger mask) jumped to grab Hall’s arms, while Os (rubber Frankenstein head), who was supposed to grab Hall’s ankles, pointed instead at the butler and cried, “Who’s that?”

“The butler,” Mac said, apologetic even though it wasn’t his fault.

“Grab him!” Mark yelled, he already having his hands full with the belatedly struggling Hall, Mark and Buddy and Ace now tugging the sacked Hall toward the trailer.

Up to this point, the butler had just been watching events unfold, interested but not involved; as though he thought of himself as merely a bystander. But now, when Os lunged at him, shouting, “Come on, Mac!” the butler backed away, putting his hands up as he cried, “Hey, don’t call me Mac, I’m the butler, I’m not in this.”

“He’ll raise the alarm!” Mark shouted from halfway into the trailer.

Mac, having already figured that out, leaped forward to join Os in grabbing the butler by both arms and dragging him in his employer’s wake.

The butler struggled like mad: “What are you doing? I got work here! I got things to do!”

What, was he crazy?

KIC Image 0026

(The final image.  Which in this volume is on the same page as the table of contents, which for reasons I could not guess, is at the back of each book.)

In spite of having studied, at scattered moments of my existence, French, Spanish, Latin, and Irish (never got around to Klingon), I am a lifelong and inveterate monoglot.  (Every bit as unappealing as it sounds.)

And thus, to my lasting regret, I will never be able to read Oleg’s translations.  I can’t savor the unique spin he puts on Westlake’s phrasings, see how he solves all the inherent problems of making him accessible to my fellow monoglots in his homeland (though I shouldn’t assume they have just the one language simply because they don’t have mine).

Like anybody who cares about fiction, and the novel in particular, I have read quite a bit of Russian literature in translation, notably the superlative work of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  I fell in love with Moliere in high school (oh grow up) thanks to the rhyming translations of Richard Wilbur, and I’d know nothing at all about Gaelic poetry, or be able to enjoy Flann O’Brien’s An Beal Bocht, without those people who straddle diverse linguistic realities, build bridges between them, so that we can see what our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, and across the ages, have thought and felt.  Skilled translators are rare and precious beings.

(And two of them know what Trump and Kim Jong Un discussed in that meeting, which is more than anyone else can say.  Hmm, which one you think has an accident first?  Do they even bother with accidents in North Korea?  I guess we’ll find out.)

Why do I do all this?  To share my love of Westlake with others who have read him.  Why did Oleg do all he did?  To share Westlake with fellow Russian speakers who’d read him, but (in his estimation) not clearly enough.  He obviously felt something had been lost in translation, and he wanted to try and provide it.

This would be worthwhile in itself, without the quality bindings and paper, without the beautiful evocative artwork (just the image of Tiny in the kitchen alone…!!!!!!)  He could have written his translations, had them printed cheaply, distributed them via the internet, and through personal connections.  (I don’t know what books he translated for a living, perhaps Ray would.)

But in communicating his passion to Alexander, and (in his function as editor of these volumes) to Mr. Turbin, he made this so much more than just improving on existing translations.  And in a fair world, he’d have lived long enough to see all the books come out, and a while after.  But he was a Westlake reader.  And what’s more, a Dortmunder reader.  So what are the odds he thought this was a fair world?

It’s a world where you take your shots, as best you can, while you can, and he took his.

Good shooting, Tovarishch.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Enconium: Mr. Dortmunder and Oleg, часть вторая (Part 2)

KIC Image 0005(2)

“It just looks small.  To me it looks small.”

“Dortmunder,” Stan said, losing his patience, “it’s a tugboat.  It’s the safest thing in New York Harbor.  This boat has pushed around oil tankers, passenger liners, big cargo ships from all over the world.”

But not recently.  Labor strife, changes in the shipping industry, competition from other eastern seaboard ports; what it all comes down to is, the New York City tugboat is an endangered species.  Most of the sturdy little red and black guys with the hairy noses and the old black tires along the sides are gone now, and the few still struggling along, like the hero of a Disney short, don’t have much of a livelihood to keep them going.

There’s nothing new, let alone revolutionary, about publishing editions of books you don’t have the rights to.  It’s happened to some of the most famous and popular books ever written.  It even happened to Shakespeare, after his death–that’s why we still have Shakespeare’s work.  Because a small group of friends and admirers (in a time before copyright) collected and published it, in a limited deluxe edition.  You may have heard of it.

firstfolio2.png

Long after most of you reading this are gone (and perhaps myself as well), the rights of the literary estate of Donald E. Westlake will expire, and anyone with access to a printing press (if such things even exist by then) will be able to publish any or all Westlake novels in any quantity or format they choose.  (Going by e-books I’ve seen, some of his short stories are already in the public domain, though none of his best ones).

From that time onwards, whether the books stay in print or not will depend entirely on whether the interest in reading them, originals or translations, still exists, passed from one generation to the next, across the centuries.  The one thing that keeps fiction in print after an author’s death is passionate readers.  And it was passionate readers who committed this unprofitable act of minor theft.  Relating to 14 novels about a unprofitable pack of minor thieves.

I find great symmetry in this.  I still think copyright laws exist for good reason, and must be enforced strongly.  But of all the storytellers who ever lived, surely this one would be most inclined to turn a blind eye when it came to theft committed in a good cause.  Or even just for the sheer fun of it.  Anyway, no doubt he and Oleg have already discussed it over a few bourbons, if Mr. Westlake had any bones to pick.  Speaking of which–

KIC Image 0003(4)

In this case, the end paper illustration relates to the first part of the omnibus.  (Though I can’t say I recall this precise scene.)

KIC Image 0004(3)

(This one I remember.  How are things in Tsergovia, Grijk?)

KIC Image 0006(3)

KIC Image 0007(3)

(Oh no!  Dortmunder is going to be tortured by Zippy the Pinhead’s evil round-headed cousin!)

KIC Image 0009(3)

(Kelp on the prowl, seeking a saintly femur.  Probably my favorite illustration from this book.)

KIC Image 0011(3)

(The stalwart men of the Continental Detective Agency on the job.  After eating drugged pizza, see up top.)

(Your guess as good as mine. Haven’t read this one in a while.)

KIC Image 0014

(So this guy gets a nod, and J.C. envisioning the great nation of Maylohda does not?  There is no justice.)

KIC Image 0015

KIC Image 0016

(Finishing up with a nice bit of heraldry.)

Time for one more?  Why not?  Or as they say in Russia–

KIC Image 0001(6)

KIC Image 0002(6)

(I don’t think Dortmunder and Gus Brock were dressed like this at the Carrport Mansion–where nobody was supposed to be–but what the hell.  Looks cool, don’t have to draw whole faces.)

(And now Dortmunder is in his usual shabby suit.  Continuity with regards to personal appearance and dress is an occasional problem with these editions, but with art like this, am I complaining?)

KIC Image 0006(4)

(I like the Superman insignia on Wally’s jacket, although it does make me wonder if in some parts of the world, he is considered to be the true hero of the novels he appears in.)

KIC Image 0007(4)

(My vote’s for this Wally!)

KIC Image 0008(3)

(Dead.  Solid.  Right.)

KIC Image 0009(4)

(You all know how I think Max Fairbanks looks.  I suppose that in present-day Russia, it might not be politique to portray him that way.  Still, way too distinguished looking–though I must admit, there is a reference to him being a brandy drinker.  Also, there are Stars of David in the I-Ching?  Who knew?)

KIC Image 0010(2)

(Dortmunder lifted his gaze from his reproachful knees, and contemplated, without love, the clothing Andy Kelp had forced him into. He said “Who wears this stuff?”

“Americans,” Kelp told him.

“Don’t they have mirrors in America?”)

KIC Image 0011(4)

(Two Golden Carriages.)

(Laugh clowns, laugh.)

KIC Image 0015(1)

(For the last laugh shall be ours.  In a Westlake novel, anyway.  Hey, maybe even in real life!  What’s the best that could happen?)

TO BE CONCLUDED–

2 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Enconium: Mr. Dortmunder and Oleg

So. The project started as a child of love. The publisher, Alexander, and the translator, Oleg, decided to do a definitive Dortmunder collection. 14 novels in 7 volumes with illustration, beautifully bound, on white expensive paper, deluxe run of 70 copies, sort of a fan club edition. Alexander didn’t buy translation rights, Oleg translated for free, since it was a hobby, Alexander printed books just for fun, since these 70 copies couldn’t possibly to bring any money. He had a full time job, he has a small printing house to supplement his income. It wasn’t made for profit. They advertised on a few message boards, got a few subscribers, hired an illustrator X (name to come).

The cover design came from Soviet SF book series ‘Ramka’, highly popular then. The illustrator, a pro, was the only one who got paid. The print run of the first book sold out fast. They made a second, then a third. Among buyers were wholesale sellers, who did most of the sales at book markets, and subscribers from various Russian cities, not only from Moscow.

After the third volume was done, the tragedy happened. Oleg the translator died.

Ray Garraty, via private email. 

I can sometimes imagine people thinking to themselves, as they scan my interminable ramblings, “So who do you imagine yourself to be here, the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan?” You don’t really want to know who I imagine myself to be, so as the saying goes, don’t ask.  But if anyone ever does, I will have my answer ready.

I am not the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan.  Not even close.  I am the world’s greatest Donald Westlake blatherskite.  It is not at all the same thing.  Oleg Zverkov was the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan.

That’s his picture up top, alongside a sampling of his great project, still ongoing as I type this.  Deluxe omnibus volumes of all the Dortmunder novels, in Russian translation (done by himself up to the time of his death), with extensive black and white illustrations (done by Andrey Turbin who is still around, I believe.)

Working as an English to Russian translator, sometimes under the pen name Oleg Smorodonov (I don’t see why translators can’t have pen names too), Oleg discovered Westlake, and through him, the world of John Dortmunder. I feel a pang saying that I never corresponded with him, and will  never be able to discuss his special devotion to Dortmunder, but feel confident in saying this much–they spoke to him.  In the way that certain books will speak to certain readers.  Those books you were waiting all your life to read, and here they are, waiting for you.  That is an experience I am well familiar with.  Requires no translation.

The Dortmunders had all been available in Russian translation for years, but foreign publishers, constrained by the profit motive (much like the domestic variety) do not always want to pay for the best translation possible, let alone high quality artwork, paper, bindings, and this goes double for genre stuff. He looked at the editions available and they were not to his satisfaction.  (Perhaps he thought the English language editions he’d read were not beyond improvement either.)  He imagined something better.  Worthy of the czar of star-crossed heisters. He envisioned a heist of his own.  And for a heist, you need a string.

His friend Alexander had, as you see above, a small printing business, and a love of doing specialty stuff just for the challenge. In a series of conversations I will assume involved intoxicants (because Russia, and because Westlake), Oleg hooked him on the idea of doing the Dortmunder editions he had dreamed of, a limited run, priced just high enough to pay their expenses–a diverting but fiscally unrewarding venture.  I suppose this would technically make Oleg the Kelp of the story.

A break-even heist, at best. Appropriate, when you consider Dortmunder’s overall career stats.  They were in no position to obtain the rights, so they didn’t try.  Russia has long had a contentious relationship with western copyrights–but this wouldn’t be stealing an author’s brainchildren for profit.  It would be abducting them for love, taking them on a grand adventure, returning them not only unharmed but enriched into the bargain.  You see the difference?  I bet Jimmy Harrington would.

Materiel was easily available to a man in Alexander’s walk of life–nothing was outsourced.  Specialists were recruited. Oleg put the best of himself into his translations and the editorial work as well, while Alexander covered the more technical aspects, as well as sales. (These days, Alexander is doing all of it.)

The books started to come out, were eagerly snapped up by enthusiasts and collectors.  The small print runs sold out quickly.  When Ray first heard about all this, he assumed the orders would mainly be coming from Moscow.  But in fact, a lot of folks out in the provinces wanted copies.  Dortmunder spoke to them too.  They also wanted to hold these books in their hands.

And then Oleg died, very suddenly.  Before the task was completed.  Alexander vowed to finish the project in his friend’s honor, as best he could.  Then run off some more copies of each for people who missed out the first time.  And that’ll be it.  He won’t be doing any more Westlakes.  It was Oleg’s passion that inspired him.

And that’s the story.  By no means unique–you may remember, a while back I showcased a Russian collector’s edition of Anarchaos here, which is also pretty great, but for sheer artisan prowess, I don’t think these Dortmunder volumes can be beat.  Anywhere.  Though we should not forget the Parker graphic novels and the illustrated edition of The Hunter from Darwyn Cooke that Westlake gave his okay to before his passing.  Cooke also died young, unexpectedly, before he’d done everything he wanted to do there.  So it’s not some posthumous copyright-related curse.  Just a strange coincidence.  The world is not simple enough to understand.

When Ray told me about all this, showed me some of the artwork, I knew I had to hold at least a few of the physical volumes in my hands.  Never mind that I can’t read them.  I wanted to have them.  Took a while, but three of these sacred icons are in my possession now.

While I can’t evaluate the literary quality of Oleg’s translations, I can see just by the way certain key pages are arranged, that every effort was made to give people not only the letter but the spirit of Westlake.  To get it right.  What else would you expect from the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan?

So.  Want to see the books?  I ran some scans.  I only have Volumes 3, 4, and 5, which cover two novels apiece.  Oleg lived long enough to translate most of the series, but the remaining novels will be done by someone else.

Although the books are printed in Cyrillic, title and author are clearly rendered in Latinate typography (useful if they ever make it to libraries outside Russia.)  I could just tell you which books they are.  I’m not going to.  If you’re a hundredth the fan Oleg was, you’ll twig to it quick enough just from the artwork.  If you can’t, you need to brush up your Westlake.  Start reading him now.

Without further ado.

Vol 3.

 

KIC Image 0009(1)

KIC Image 0001(3)

KIC Image 0002(3)

(Not quite how I’d envision J.C. or Tiny.)

(Much better!)

KIC Image 0007(1)

(Where there’s a Wilbur, there’s a way.)

KIC Image 0009

KIC Image 0010

(The concluding page.  On to the next book.  Which is–)

KIC Image 0022

(First the endpaper illustrations–then a rather magnificent two-pager inside the book.  I’ll have to stitch those together. )

(A lot more impressive in the physical volume.)

KIC Image 0003(1)

(Some pages have decorative illustrations, not directly related to the story–and also, at times, footnotes,  not part of the original book, presumably there for readers less familiar with aspects of American history and culture.  Which includes quite a few Americans, but most of them don’t read Westlake.)

KIC Image 0002(2)

KIC Image 0001(4)

KIC Image 0001(2)

(If at first you don’t succeed….)

KIC Image 0002(4)

KIC Image 0003(3)

(The meat packing district is a lot more densely packed than this, but nitpicking.)

KIC Image 0006(2)

(The best-laid schemes…..)

KIC Image 0007(2)

(At times, Mr. Turbin likes to show us what the characters are seeing in their heads, instead of just dreary literalism, and I think Westlake would approve.)

KIC Image 0008(1)

(Literal, but not at all dreary.)

KIC Image 0009(2)

KIC Image 0011(1)

(“Now, Tim Jepson!  Now!”)

KIC Image 0012(1)

(I would have preferred Dortmunder ranting at a TV set, with this parting image on the screen, and perhaps a dish of May’s famous tuna casserole on the table, but that would be a lot more work, and I bet they didn’t pay Turbin that much.)

Overall, I think this is the best-illustrated novel of the six I’ve seen, but much more good stuff to come.  On reflection, maybe I better devote one article apiece to each volume.  So a three-parter.  What’s the worst that could happen?  Aw shucks, another spoiler.  Can’t seem to help myself.

11 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Plug: Mr. Westlake and the Open Road

Trailer for sale or rent, rooms to let fifty cents
No phone, no pool, no pets, I ain’t got no cigarettes
Ah but, two hours of pushin’ broom buys a
Eight by twelve four-bit room
I’m a man of means by no means, king of the road

Third boxcar midnight train, destination Bangor, Maine
Old worn out suit and shoes, I don’t pay no union dues
I smoke old stogies I have found, short but not too big around
I’m a man of means by no means, king of the road

I know every engineer on every train
All the children and all of their names
And every handout in every town
And every lock that ain’t locked when no-one’s around
I sing…

Lyrics by Roger Miller (hey baby, would I lie?)

This morning I arise, like an extra on The Walking Dead, shake off the cobwebs, take some pills (non-recreational, alas), make my way from bathroom to kitchen to desktop.  At the last destination, I am mildly discombobulated to find a new comment for The Fugitive Pigeon review I posted almost four years ago.  Appropriate, since I feel very much like a dead nephew most mornings of late. (I can’t drink coffee anymore.  It would take too long to explain.)

Why, it’s Anthony!  When’s the last time he showed up here?  As Bernard Shaw once wrote to Mrs. Patrick Campbell, having just received a missive from her following a lengthy lapse in their correspondence–“So–you yet live.” 

It is a brief but substantive message.  Somebody has put out the first-ever (to my knowledge) ebook edition of the aforementioned Columba Livia on the Lam.  Westlake’s very first comic crime novel, his most popular book ever at the time it came out, much to the befuddlement of the agent who begged him not to write it.

Many editions have appeared over the years, foreign and domestic, but at the present time it is out of print.  Unless you count pixels as print.  I’ve never been clear on that.  Point is you can have it for Kindle now, if you want.  Don’t have to rely on Amazon Marketplace anymore.  Yes, the cover art is pretty on the nose, but that was true of some of the real books as well.  (Also some very good ones, mainly from those artsy overseas publishers, but I’m partial to the fourth American printing, paperback, from Ballantine Books.  Even though that’s technically a dove.)

The publisher is listed as MysteriousPress.com/Open Road.  Open Road Media is a company that does ebooks, and all the Mysterious Press Westlakes that are currently evailable are evailable through them.  Most of the Dortmunders, Dancing Aztecs, Ex Officio, Two  Much!, all five of the Mitch Tobin Mysteries.

(Hey, when did he write that book about Hitler?  I haven’t reviewed that one.  Oh wait, different Westlake. Possibly different Hitler. What day is it?  Anyone know?  Are my feet supposed to be feeling all prickly like this, doctor?  Are my thoughts supposed to be so scattered?  I don’t  normally have back pain.  You smiled that world weary smile when I brought up the matter of side effects.  “Oh foolish layperson, do you want the miracle of modern pharmaceuticals or do you not?  All for a mere twenty-five dollar co-pay.  Here, I’ll even give you a free sample.  Whole pack of them, right on my desk.  Funny coincidence, that.”)

So there’s no link for me to follow, Anthony was clearly off somewhere in a hurry, no time to chat with his old Uncle Fred.  That’s fine, Anthony.  Go off and enjoy your life, why don’t you?  See if I care!  I bet you can still drink coffee!  Mumbling incoherently to myself, I consult the great oracle Google, and find the e-edition in question post-haste.  But wait–there’s more!

(Well you already knew that from the images up top.  I really have to stop it with the spoilers sometime.  It’s an old habit.  You know, as a boy, I snuck down early one Christmas morning and opened all the presents.  I don’t just mean my presents.  I was always thorough.  Some might consider that a virtue.)

SIX new ebooks!  Westlakes long and unforgivably out of print.   All bearing similarly schematic digital decorations, clashing a mite with the graphic art from earlier Mysterious Press/Open Road editions.  Some starving artist paid off the back rent on his loft with that assignment, I’ll bet. (Unless it was a starving computer.  Do computers get hungry?  I should probably call the doctor soon.)

They’re all good in my book, but I’d place The Spy in the Ointment, Cops and Robbers, and Trust Me On This on any best-of list I compiled for Westlake.  Which is the same thing as saying any list I compile of books to read before you die.  (Good thing I already have. Read them, I mean.  Pretty sure that’s what I mean.)

Some of his finest remain on the most-wanted list,  Looking at you, Adios Scheherazade, and don’t look so furtive, the #MeToo movement doesn’t even know you exist yet, and anyway, you’re on their side, kind of, maybe, I guess.  If they come for you, torches blazing, just shout “Hark! The Ghost of Philip Roth!,” then run for it while they hold up their crucifixes and chant the rites of exorcism.  Waxing Roth, you might say.  (I’m starting to feel better.)

I don’t know what we’re going to do about Up Your Banners.  I really don’t. As piercingly penetrative a perusal of American race relations (biblical and otherwise) as ever I’ve read, and I just don’t know who’d risk putting it out there now.  But it ought to be out there.  It has things to teach that we need to learn.  But there’s this thing called ‘whitesplaining’ now.  Okay, I get it, but seems to me we’ve all got a whole lot of ‘splainin’ to do, and nobody does it better than Westlake.  The real problem is that it’s not any identifiable genre.  A white elephant, you might call it.  In bed with a black one.  (I can just say it’s the medication talking.)

A Likely Story likewise isn’t the right genre, if any, and yet it’s one of his funniest books, and it should at least be evailable, even if there aren’t any crimes committed in it other than adultery.  Anarchaos doesn’t have that problem, and is as genre as they come.  Killy is a murder mystery where the protagonists are union organizers in a hostile factory town–hey, that’s timely.  There’s still some really good low-hanging fruit, as yet unplucked.

The list of Westlake novels not available in any form is shrinking fast.  I don’t know if a Library of America collection will ever happen at this rate.  There may not be enough books no other publisher has taken responsibility for.  Hard Case Crime is coming out with their edition of Brothers Keepers soon (print and pixels, hey big spenders!)  I’m sure more will be forthcoming from there.  Maybe they’ll do the natural follow-up to their reprint edition of The Mercenaries.  (I know Killing Time isn’t the sexiest crime novel ever, but it’s sure as hell one of the bloodiest, and people still read Red Harvest.)

Anyway, I’ll keep watching for the next big digital dump (these all came out on May 29th) and keep you all posted when it comes.  The books I mean, not any hurried trips to the lavatory.  (That being one of the side-effects I missed.)

Every day, in every way, we are getting better and better.  Well no, we’re not.  But at least we have stuff to read while we convalesce.  Sing ho, for the open highway, sing ho, for the open road………..

12 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, Uncategorized

Review:The Duplicate Keys, Part 3–Smashing Mercenary Cuties

mercenaries_3_back

Another interesting new and young writer is Donald E. Westlake whose THE MERCENARIES (Random, $2.95) is substantial and effective–if the publisher’s “the first new direction in the tough mystery since Hammett” remains mysterious.  Clay is a troubleshooter for what he does not like to call The Syndicate–an efficient, likable, understandable young man who arranges everything including, when need be, murders.  When a syndicate newcomer is framed for killing a blonde, it’s Clay’s job to turn detective, to find and eventually to execute the real killer. Despite a few (probably necessary but regrettable) concessions to conventional morality, this is a largely excellent job of sustained narrative and observation within the framework of a self-consistent world, alien to law and convention.  (And don’t tell me Hammett didn’t do just that in “The Glass Key.”)

Anthony Boucher, from the Criminals at Large column, New York Times, August 7th, 1960. 

“Clay. Don’t tell me to don’t be silly. I know, I know, you’re fine with me, you’re a nice guy and we have a good time together, but—then you can turn around and be so cold-blooded, talk about giving somebody an accident when what you really mean is you’re going to go out and commit cold-blooded murder, and it’s just as though it doesn’t really mean a thing to you at all. There just isn’t any feeling there, any emotion. And that scares me, Clay. With me, you show feeling. One of those two faces has to be false. I’m just scared it’s the face you show me.”

“You can’t feel pity for a guy you’re supposed to kill, Ella,” I said. “Or you couldn’t do it.”

“Do you want to feel pity?”

“I can’t. That’s all there is to it, I can’t. I don’t dare to.”

“You don’t have to kill, Clay.”

“I do what I’m told,” I said. “I’m Ed’s boy, he’s my boss, he says do, I do.”

“Why? Clay, you’re smart, you don’t have to be Ed’s boy. You could be anybody’s boy. You could even be your own boy, if you worked at it.”

“I don’t want to be my own boy.”

“What’s Ed to you, Clay?” she asked me.

I lay there through a long silence, my head in her lap, her fingers soothing on my temples. What was Ed to me? “All right,” I said. “I’ll tell you a story.”

The question that nags at me is why.

Of course Westlake would start by imitating Hammett.  Hammett meant more to him than maybe any other writer, certainly any other mystery writer.  His second crime novel was a revisionist take on Red Harvest, a book he revisited over and over again across his career.  His first major series protagonist bears more than a passing resemblance to Sam Spade, huge hands, animal magnetism, and all (though Parker has many literary forebears, as I’ve noted elsewhere).  His second major series protagonist, Mitch Tobin, was a re-imagined Nick Charles, with the emotional problems only implied in The Thin Man made much more explicit, worked out in greater detail across five novels.

The Op stories, The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man–those all resonate across many Westlake books (maybe all of them).  He returned to that well over and over.  I’m not sure I see any strong influence from The Glass Key, in any book other than this, the first he wrote under his own name (The Fugitive PigeonThe Busy Body?  Maybe a touch, but neither of those guys qualifies as a fixer.  Butcher’s Moon has a mobbed up cop who might qualify, but there’s no close relationship between him and the crime boss, for obvious reasons.  There’s a mob fixer in Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, and that book is clearly a variation on this one, but it’s not about the fixer, or his relationship with his boss–it’s about a disgraced police detective solving a mystery for them.)

The final duplicate key–the last I know of.  Recognized as such at the time among cognoscenti–it wasn’t meant to be a secret, what he was doing here (both books begin with the protagonist having a confused conversation with a stutterer who is begging a favor from their mutual boss).

That capsule Boucher review up top is prima facie evidence of this recognition.  Though I wonder if even Boucher recognized that The Mercenaries, as it was then called, was not homage so much as revolt.  More than in any other story of his that derived from Hammett, Westlake was saying here that Hammett got it wrong.  And he was drawing obliquely upon his own past experiences (that no critic knew anything about then) to say this.  And I would say that all the other duplicate keys are evidence that he was not the only one who thought Hammett got it wrong.  Or at least that there was room for improvement there.

But why?  The very first novel bearing his name.  For Random House.  In hardcover.  Maybe the most significant career choice he ever made.  What would that book be about?  He chose to make it a rewrite of The Glass Key.  Which he knew had been rewritten multiple times in the past few decades.  And none of those rewrites were bestsellers (as the original had been).   Most had vanished without a ripple. And the writers who produced them were all damn good.  What made him think he could do better?  Better, perhaps, than Hammett himself? On his first try?

Before we proceed, let’s recap:

The Glass Key: A beautifully written book with a murky repetitive plot and sketchy motivations.  Ned Beaumont loves Paul Madvig like a brother, is loved in return, his loyalty seemingly unbreakable.  He executes his job as fixer with polished efficiency, even though he’s only been in this town about a year.  And just as mysteriously as it manifested itself, his loyalty to Madvig disappears, replaced by a very unconvincing romance with the society gal Madvig has been so unwise as to fall for.  He leaves town with her, no better or worse off than he was before, having cleared Madvig of murder by solving a mystery–shoring up Madvig’s power base before leaving, but leaving his friend a broken man, desolate and alone.  Ned never kills anybody, though he indirectly causes a few deaths.

Love’s Lovely Counterfeit:  A marginal duplicate. Cain tries not to get too close to the original, but his influence is clear.  Ben Grace double crosses his boss (no love lost on either side) first chance he gets, takes charge of the organization, makes mistakes, pays the price, but he’s not bitching about it, goes out on his own terms.  With Ben, it’s all about the girls–who happen to be sisters, which is where he really goes wrong, because that’s how James M. Cain rolls.  Not a terrible book, but not what Cain did best, though he does add some interesting details about the way organized crime ties into politics (and the police force), and makes money primarily by entertaining the masses with illicit (or semi-licit) pleasures, such as pinball machines.  Ben kills once, in self-defense.

Devil On Two Sticks: Wade Miller went back to the original idea of a mobster’s consigliere assigned to solve a mystery–in this case plug a leak.  Find a mole, then whack said mole. Steven Beck feels no loyalty to his boss, nor the boss to him, but Beck is all about the job, doing it better than anyone else–he’s described as more machine than man by a lawyer working for the outfit, gifted with an ability to switch off his emotions, that fails him in the end.  He’s likewise been doing this job for a suspiciously short time–just came up out of nowhere, no backstory, no explanation of how he got into this line of work.  Again, a woman (the lawyer’s daughter)  is the reason his Machiavellian machinations don’t work out as planned, but he leaves under his own steam, alone, having made a moral choice–that means violating his professional ethics.  (Note: In the fifth Max Thursday novel published the year after this, it’s revealed that Beck’s boss and his entire organization got taken down by the law not long after Beck split for parts unknown, though Beck isn’t referenced in that book.)  Beck takes out a few rival hoods who plan to kill him, and accepts the job of killing the mole once he finds him without complaint.  It just doesn’t go that way in the end.

Dig My Grave Deep:  Daniel Port feels a deep (if irritable) loyalty to his mentor and boss Stoker, who wants him to stay and take over once he dies, but is willing to kill Port if he tries to leave, which he’s trying to do for the entire book.  Port feels a deeper loyalty to himself–he’s supremely good at his job, doesn’t really know how to do anything else, but he doesn’t think the job is worth doing, or worth the price you pay for doing it.  He meets a girl (predictable, ain’t it?), who he’d like to leave town with, and she’s good with that, but he gets cheated of his happy ending, perhaps because Rabe (or the publisher) wanted more books about Port, which wasn’t necessarily a good idea.  More useful details on the kinds of things a guy in this position might do to interfere in what is depicted as an utterly corrupt local government.  But on his way out, he provides one of the few honest people left in town with all the ammunition he’ll need to clean it up.  Port can be brutal, but like Beaumont, he doesn’t kill anyone, even if sometimes his choices lead to deaths.

Kill The Boss Goodbye: Maybe the best of these books as a book, but Rabe cunningly reverses the polarity, making it much more about the boss than the flunky.  Cripp, the Beaumont proxy, has never really had an identity of his own, in spite of some extraordinary gifts–his withered leg is symbolic of a withered soul.  His employer and friend, Tom Fell, has had a breakdown, and as a friend, his duty should be to get Fell the professional help he needs.  As his aide de camp, it’s Cripp’s duty to get Fell back to the trenches before a conniving subordinate takes over.  Fell rises to the challenge, then falls before his own maddened hubris.  Cripp presumably falls with him.  We never find out, because it was never really about him–he was just along for the ride, because that’s his karma.  There’s a woman, Fell’s wife, who is the only thing holding Fell together–she’s not the cause of his downfall (that would be Fell himself, hence the name), but in the end, her love isn’t enough to save him either.  Cripp would probably kill for Fell, but it never comes up.  Horse-racing isn’t that violent.

Murder Me For Nickels:  The first of these books to be written in the first person.  Also the first (and only) to approach the material humorously, and therefore does not feature a single dead body, though it makes up for that lack with lots of lusty guilt-free extramarital sex.  (One might wish this approach were more prevalent in the genre.)   Jack St. Louis feels both loyalty and friendship towards Walter Lippit, but he still puts himself first in a pinch, seducing Lippit’s girlfriend (and she him), maintaining a business of his own on the side–he nearly goes down because of the girlfriend’s wounded pique, but she’s also the one who intervenes on his behalf.  When they become a couple, there’s no real hard feelings in either direction, but (in keeping with the original) the friendship and partnership with Lippit is over.  Probably goes into greater detail about what somebody like this does on a daily basis than any of the other books, but you don’t need to corrupt a whole lot of people to have a jukebox monopoly in a small town.  Jack’s a brawler, but he never even thinks about killing anyone.  (He hates guns, and as a general rule, none of these guys makes a habit of carrying one.)

We know for a fact Westlake read The Glass Key, and all three Rabe novels (the last one probably after he penned his own duplicate, also in the first person).  Seems likely he’d have at least scanned Cain’s novel–very influential crime novelist who didn’t write all that many crime novels (and this one got turned into a movie full of red-hot redheads).

The question mark is Devil On Two Sticks, since I don’t know that Westlake ever mentioned Wade Miller.  The marked similarities between that book and this one we’re looking at now could be coincidence, but it would be a lot of coincidences.  I’m pretty sure he’d come across it.  There’s talk in that book about the organization moving into narcotics, and Beck’s against it.  This bush league California syndicate is connected to the Mafia (never mentioned by name), but other than a few lower-ranking guys of Mexican or Filipino ancestry, it’s seemingly all WASPs.  They meet at the boss’ house for cocktails and light sophisticated conversation.  The Sopranos it ain’t.

Westlake’s goal wasn’t documentary realism (unlikely an Italian American mobster in Gotham is going to have some upstater named George Clayton as his second-in-command, though I suppose stranger things have happened).  But one decision he made early on was that it would be set in a real city–New York–and that organized crime would be depicted as Italian-run, and up to its neck in the heroin trade (which is a prime mover in the story–their supplier is in Europe, and if they lose that connection, they lose their power–and then their lives.)

This is a noir whodunnit with an organized crime angle, written for Random House’s hardcover mystery imprint. Which means there’s going to be a corpus delecti at the center of the story, and we’re going to spend most of the book finding out how it got there, and the solution to that puzzle will be the denouement.  Since this is Westlake, it won’t be the real point of the story.  The point is identity, like I said the last time I reviewed it.  But that’s not saying the half of it.

My original review, which I just reread, covered the bases pretty well, considering.  I even caught the similarity between Clay and Daniel Port, since I’d read a lot of Peter Rabe novels by then–but I hadn’t read The Glass Key, the template from which all these books came.  The Master Key.  And for somebody trying to understand where Westlake is going with this, a skeleton key.

So no point in a synopsis here.  Let’s talk about what makes this duplicate different from all that came before.

The setting is New York City–not some fictional burg out in the middle of nowhere, and not the little-known National City, a short drive from San Diego, which Wade Miller used.  The very epicenter of western civilization and the world economy then, and to some extent still today.  The cities in most of the other books don’t feel quite real, because they’re not.  Doesn’t mean the other writers were wrong–sometimes you want that kind of complete control over the locale that comes from inventing it.  But not always.

The protagonist is George Clayton, known as ‘Clay’ to his colleagues.  Raised upstate, like Westlake.  Did a short stint  in the armed forces like Westlake.  Went to an upstate college on the GI bill, like Westlake.  Got into trouble with the law, like Westlake–but worse.  Ran over a young waitress on a deserted road, while driving a car stolen as a prank.  Crime boss Ed Ganolese happened by, and more or less on a whim, helped him get rid of the evidence, coached him on how to avoid paying the price for his mistake.

Nobody could prove he’d killed the girl, but he knew he had, and so did everybody else, and he got the cold shoulder, even from his dad.  Feeling like Ed was the only one on his side, he eventually came across him again, and asked for a job.  It only took him a few years to work his way up from the bottom to be Ed’s right-hand man, described in the papers as a trouble-shooter.  That was nine years ago–he’s 32 now.

This is quite different from all the other books (especially Hammett’s), where the fixer’s past isn’t really gone into, where he’s only held the job for a year or two (and yet performs it with practiced skill), and where his loyalty (if any) to the boss is never explained very well.  Westlake goes to a lot more trouble with motivation than the others.  He doesn’t want Clay to be a mystery to us.  There are a lot of speeches in the book where he explains himself (maybe more than there should be–overcompensation–Westlake cared a lot about character motivation, but needed a few more books to learn how to get it across without hitting us over the head).

Like Murder Me For Nickels (which only came out a few months before The Mercenaries), it’s Clay telling us his story in the first person.  The others all had third person narrators, though Hammett’s never leaves Ned Beaumont’s side for a moment.  In some of the other  duplicates, the POV switched around a bit.  Not here.

Women are important in all these books, but mainly as a way of telling us things about the men.  Ned Beaumont likes women, and they him, but there’s always this offhanded diffidence about the way he treats them.  He can take ’em or leave ’em alone, but they refuse to let him alone.  He eventually leaves with one, but it’s pretty hard to buy that he’s in love with her.  She’s just the next best thing to his friendship with Madvig, which ran its course.

In Cain’s treatment, the fixer (now boss) gets caught between two sisters–using one for her connections, and then falling head over heels for the other, which is always a terrible idea, but never having been in love before, he didn’t know how it can turn your priorities upside down.

In Wade Miller’s book, the fixer falls for the daughter of a colleague, much younger than himself, and she falls for another member of the gang, closer to her age.  This has a devastating impact on him, emotionally.  He’ll never believe in himself the same way again, and he can no longer control his emotions–which lead him to walk away from the organization, after doing something really noble. And a bit stupid (as noble deeds often are), but we’re given to understand he’ll be okay, if not too happy.

The way of a man with a maid was a Rabe specialty–happy endings not so much. Daniel Port finds true lust with a Mexican American girl, but perhaps because he’s got to remain single for as long as the series lasts, he’s leaving town in search of her at the end, and far as we know he never found her.  He finds many others, but if he ever finds The One his story is over, because that seems to be all he cares about (big switch from Beaumont).  Cripp seems to have no interest in women, or figures they’d have no interest in him, even though he’s a good-looking guy from the waist up. Jack St. Louis is the biggest ladies man of the bunch, hooks up with two bountiful brunettes during his book, but he never has much in the way of serious conversation either of them–just banter, as a prelude to sex. (Could be talk is overrated).

Ella, Clay’s girlfriend of a few weeks, a nightclub dancer who he asked right away to shack up with him, is depicted as the ultimate male fantasy–smart, serious, sympathetic, and sexy as all hell.  Unconvincing, being utterly without flaw–but that may be the point.  Clay has to make a choice, and Westlake wants to make the stakes clear.  If he can turn this girl down–since she wants him to go straight, or at least go solo, cut the cord to Ganolese–then he’s got no excuse.  Life made him an offer, and he turned Life down.

And this is why she’s much more central to the story than the other women in the other books.  Even though some of the others were more accurately drawn. She’s Clay’s conscience, and he’s going to talk to her a lot, and listen to her, and be troubled by what she says to him–and what she doesn’t say–that she can’t accept what he does for a living. She knew he was a mobster when they first got together, but she didn’t understand the full implications until later.

Because, you see, part of that living involves dying–murdering anyone Ed Ganolese points at.  Sometimes just hiring a pro, but in some cases, the job requires the personal touch.  At which point, Clay tells both her and us, he turns off his emotions and becomes a machine.  He’s talked to professional killers while engaging their services (Westlake is drawing heavily on Rabe’s influence here), and he says one of them told him he didn’t see how anyone couldn’t enjoy killing.  He disagrees.

It’s an easy thing to take your own private sickness and claim everybody else has it too, so it really isn’t a sickness after all. And who could tell this guy, if he were still alive—the cops got him, finally, when he was enjoying himself so much after one job he couldn’t bring himself to leave the body—that he’s wrong, that the sickness is real, and almost exclusively his own?

A guy who’s never killed can’t say whether killing is enjoyable or not. I’ve killed, so I can refute that madman. I’ve never killed a man I hated. I’ve never killed a man who was doing any good for society in being alive. I’ve never killed a man for personal reasons of any kind.

I’ve killed. Only a few times, but I have killed, and I’ve never enjoyed it. It’s been strictly business, strictly a job I’m supposed to do. And I know if I let any emotion come out at all, it wouldn’t be enjoyment, it would be pity. And then I wouldn’t be able to do it.

What I do enjoy is the reputation I’ve got. Ed knows all he has to do is point a finger and say, “Clay, that guy has to stop breathing, don’t farm it out,” and he knows the guy will stop breathing, and I won’t farm it out to one of the professional triggermen, and I won’t do a sloppy job of it. The law has never come near us for any killing I’ve done personally.

That’s part of the reputation. Dependability, no matter what. I enjoy knowing I’ve got that reputation, and I enjoy knowing I deserve it. The other part is that the people in the organization who know me, or know of me, know I’m the best damn watchdog Ed Ganolese has ever had. They know I can’t be bought, they know I can’t be scared, they know I can’t be outfoxed. They know I can turn emotion off, and they know no man has ever been trapped except through his emotions.

Unlike Beaumont and all the others in this key chain I’ve been examining, Clay has committed multiple murders, in cold blood, before we ever met him, and if that bothers him, he does a good job hiding it.  Not good people, to be sure, but that’s just because Ed never asked him to kill any good people.  He tells Ella that if Ed pointed at her, he’d do it, even though he’s in love with her–this is how he first tells her he loves her–and she sticks around–you see what I mean about the unconvincing part, right?

Hammett and the others didn’t feel comfortable with making an unapologetic killer their hero, for reasons both personal and commercial–that ‘conventional morality’ that Boucher refers to in his review of Westlake’s book is hard to shake, even in crime fiction. But for Westlake, this is not something to be shied away from, danced around.  This is a story about organized crime–Ed Ganolese isn’t a corrupt ward-heeler, but a mafia don, albeit with some influential friends in city government.  Making people who are in some way complicating your business disappear is part of that business.

Even if there are fixers out there who never bloody their own hands–and there are–or never hire a killer–because that’s a lot easier to get away with in fiction–what difference does it make?  You know who you’re working for.  You know what the job is.  You’ve chosen your loyalties, and right and wrong don’t enter into it.  If the boss tells you to make some blonde he slept with go away, and you hire some tough to lean on her, and her baby daughter is there in the car when he leans, and then you pay her off, shut her up–is that better or worse than personally whacking a fellow crook, who’d gladly do the same to you?  I guess we could argue the point.  I guess we will, someday.

Ed Ganolese himself is different from the other bosses in the other book.  We don’t see a lot of him–he’s mainly a voice on the phone, or a brief presence here and there, telling Clay to go find that cutie who set up Billy Billy Cantell for the murder of Mavis St. Paul, and (like Steven Beck, in Wade Miller’s novel) deal with him personally.

We learn about him through Clay, but because Clay is loyal to Ed–feels that he owes him for getting him out of an accidental homicide rap, then giving him a shot that led to his current cushy mobbed-up lifestyle, when he could have just been some ordinary schmo, working a dead end job–because Clay’s identity is all wrapped up in serving Ed–to the point where he knows if Ed goes down, he’s probably going with him–we get the feeling he’s not one of your more reliable narrators, at least where Ed is concerned.

Ella was right, I did like working for Ed Ganolese. I liked everything about it. I liked the feeling of being Ed Ganolese’s strong right arm. I was high enough in the organization so that no one in the world but Ed Ganolese could give me orders. At the same time, I wasn’t in a position of final authority, where the power-hungry boys would like to rush me to the graveyard so they could take over. It was a safe and strong position, one of the safest and strongest in the world, and I liked having it.

That’s not Ned Beaumont, who doesn’t really seem to like his job much, good as he is at it.  Ned, a born loner, just likes having a friend he’d do anything for, and he likes being part of his friend’s family, having dinner at the house with Paul’s saintly silver-haired mother, being treated like he’s Madvig’s old army buddy or something, and he just takes all that for granted, until suddenly he doesn’t, and we never really see the process by which that happens.

That’s not Ben Grace, who despises his boss, and can’t wait to backstab him. That’s not Steven Beck, who could care less about his boss, or his position in the organization (which he could walk away from at any time), but is just in love with the idea of being good at his job.  It’s not the conflicted rebellious loyalty of Dan Port (who is dead determined to quit for the entire novel, but just when he thinks he’s out….), the blind loyalty of Cripp to Tom Fell (that destroys them both), or the cunningly conditional compartmentalized loyalty of Jack St. Louis to Walter Lippit, while still looking out for his own private interests, and screwing Lippit’s girl when he’s not looking.

George Clayton has just decided to define his identity through his loyalty to the man he works for.  He feels no great love for the guy.  They don’t socialize (that’s bad business).  He doesn’t go to dinner at Ed’s house.  It’s 100% professional, and well-compensated as he is, unshakeably loyal as he is, Clay doesn’t think of himself as Ed’s friend.   He thinks of himself as Ed’s servitor.  His good right hand.  Ed uses the phrase himself.  He’s all-in for Ed–but it’s strictly one way.

He’s not being groomed for leadership (wrong background, no family connection, unlike Ray Kelly in 361.) Which is fine by him, because he doesn’t want to be the boss.  And in spite of Ella’s remonstrations, he doesn’t want to be his own man either–take responsibility for his life, his choices.  And that, for Donald E. Westlake, is the unforgivable sin.

Most of the book is Clay dutifully following the trail, interviewing suspects like a cop (he’s painfully aware of how funny this is), crossing names off the list one by one, until he’s got the perp.  It’s well done for what it is, but the real point is to see how smart Clay is, how perceptive about other people–and how blind to himself.

That crack he makes about that hired killer pretending everybody else has the same problem as him–he’s doing the same thing all through the story.  Over and over, he insists that we’re all crooks, in one way or another.  Nobody’s honest, nobody’s clean, everybody’s got an angle.  He makes a persuasive case–but for the wrong reason.  Not to see himself more clearly, but to avoid seeing himself at all.  He tells Ella all about what he does, who he is, because he wants her to be with him, not some image of him she’s invented in her mind–but she sees him more clearly than he ever will.

“As a cop told me tonight,” I said, “I work within the system. Guys like Ed Ganolese, and the organizations they control, exist only because the average citizen wants them to exist. The average citizen wants an organization that can supply a nice, reliable whore when he’s in the mood. The average citizen wants an organization that runs after-hours drinking places for the nights when Average Citizen doesn’t feel like going home at closing time. The average citizen likes a union that’s a little crooked, because he knows some of the gravy’s going to seep down to him. The average citizen even likes to know there’s some place where he can pick up some marijuana if he feels like being wild and Bohemian for a while. And with the number of drug addicts in this country numbering over a hundred thousand, I’m talking about the average citizen. The average citizen also likes to gamble, to buy his imported whiskey cheap, and to read in the papers about desperate gangsters. The average citizen votes for crooked politicians and knows they’re crooked politicians when he votes for them. But maybe he’ll get something off his property assessment, or he’ll be able to pick up a little graft. At the very least, he’ll get his kicks by knowing somebody else is picking up some graft.”

“That’s all rationalization, Clay, and you know it,” she said.

“It isn’t rationalization, it’s the truth. It’s the way the system works and the reason for the system’s existence, and I work within the system.” I got to my feet and paced back and forth, warming to my subject. It was a subject I’d thought about often during the last nine years. “Simple economics shows it’s the way the system works,” I said. “Look, no business can survive if it doesn’t get support from the consumer, right?”

“Clay, this isn’t a business.”

“But it is. We don’t rob banks, for God’s sake. We run a business. We have items for sale or for rent, and the goddam general public buys. Girls or drugs or higher wages or whatever it is, we give something for the money we get. We’re a business, and we wouldn’t last a minute if we weren’t supported by our goddam buying public.”

And that’s true.  Maybe more today than it ever was.  And maybe there’s nothing anyone can do about it, but there’s something anyone can do something about–and that’s himself.  Clay talks a good game about how other people kid themselves, but he’s the biggest kidder of them all.  Because he believes as long as he’s loyal to Ed Ganolese, Ed Ganolese will be loyal to him.

That was the crucial assumption in The Glass Key, and it’s the central flaw of that book.  Beaumont never betrays Madvig, no matter what the inducement. Madvig only betrays Beaumont by withholding crucial information, for what would have to be called unselfish (if irrational) reasons.  Ned Beaumont is a fantasy figure with a credible world-weary edge to him, and nobody did those better than Hammett–but Madvig is pure fantasy. He doesn’t exist.  Not in that job.  Not for very long.  And the novel founders on that problem.  Okay, not everyone agrees with me about that.  But I can think of five capable mystery authors who did.

All the writers who tried their hand at fixing Hammett’s mistake came back to the relationship between fixer and boss.  Why would someone so much smarter and tougher than the man he works for go on working for him, when the price is so high?  James M. Cain said he wouldn’t–he’d take the power for himself.  Wade and Miller said he only cared about doing his job well, and the fixer job was more interesting.  Peter Rabe said one was trying to repay an old debt before he made his exit–another had no self-esteem, needed an idol to worship–a third was just biding his time, delaying maturity.

Donald Westlake said what Shakespeare said before him–the fault is in ourselves.  That we are underlings.  Whether we follow the leader blindly, or blame him for our problems–either way.  We’re not taking responsibility.  We’re failing to know ourselves.  And that makes it inevitable that bosses will come–and they won’t be any great geniuses. Like Ed Ganolese, who makes a critical mistake at the end, and (it is strongly implied) sets up his good right hand to pay for it–they are ruled by their own chaotic emotions.

It’s interesting to me that Westlake didn’t let Ed get away with it.  He wrote a much better novel than this, not long afterwards, about a better man than Clay, who does come to know himself–and Ed Ganolese has a brief cameo in that novel, where he meets his own end.  Doesn’t even get any lines.  And when the trigger is pulled, you know it’s Westlake pulling it.  And I like to think that was also Westlake’s subtextual homage to Wade Miller’s book, since Pat Garland’s downfall is reported to us in an unrelated detective novel.  Westlake did it better. Westlake almost always did it better.  We should remember (and he never forgot) that he stood on a lot of shoulders while doing it.

Did he this time?  Is this the best of the duplicate keys?  Is it better than even the Master Key?

Yes.  No.  I don’t know.  Does it matter?  Do we really read fiction only to rate it? And shouldn’t we rate it most of all by what it teaches us?

Reading this book for the fourth time (Fifth? Lost count.), I was reminded how not good some parts of it are.  Westlake was maybe halfway to finding his voice as a writer.  Parts of it are startlingly sharp and on-point, even today–which only clashes the more with the parts of it that are too by-the-numbers.  The contrivances you can’t avoid in a story like this (or any story) are not well concealed enough.

Too many well-worn genre clichés that he hasn’t quite yet mastered the gift of making his own. Too many stock characters who don’t quite come to life. Ella is more than a mere sex interest, though there’s a lot of (sadly offscreen) sex, and we’re very interested–but she’s less than a fully developed person, a problem Westlake would have over and over again when he idealized women, as he was wont to do at times (his best women were crooks, like just his best men.) A few too many impassioned self-explanatory speeches by Clay, though it was crucially important to Westlake that he get his points across–while we infer all the points left unmade.  The soapbox was another thing he’d learn to conceal better over time.

Of all these noirish narratives, only The Mercenaries is a first novel (well, first novel that isn’t pseudoporn cranked under a pseudonym).  I think each of the previous books is better, each in its own way–and worse, ditto.  I think that’s the story here.  That each writer found his own answer to the question posted by Ned Beaumont and his duplicates, and no answer could ever be perfect, because Hammett’s original pattern was flawed, if intriguing.  The key always shattered in the lock.

But for all that, I would say the door opened a little wider each time, even if the chain stayed on.  Life has certain  unifying patterns, just like keys do.  But it’s the variations in each new pattern that make the difference.  That create the possibility of a different ending to the same old story.  That make us individuals. When the bosses in this world just want us to be machines they can use and control. But we can walk out on them.  Or overthrow them.  Or become them. Or remain loyal to them.  And see where that gets us.

I wonder about Clay.  After all this time.  He’s sitting there in his living room, having sent Ella a message they’re through.  He let himself get emotional about her, and he can’t afford that.  But as he goes over recent events in his head, he’s recognizing that Ed made a stupid emotional blunder, that the cops will capitalize on–they’re going to need another fall guy.  Then the doorbell rings. It’s probably that nameless call girl he ordered, to help him forget Ella, and all her niggling little questions.  But what if it isn’t?  What if he had it figured wrong, this whole time?  What if he’s the fall guy?

Even now, he’s still got a choice.  We’ve been told there’s a fire escape.  He can use it.  He can run to the club, tell his beautiful conscience he’s sorry, she was right all along, and they make a run for it together–or he can turn state’s evidence.  The odds of either path working out are lousy.  But his creator gave him that escape hatch on purpose.  So he’d have the chance of at least going out his own man.  Instead of a pathetic patsy.  That’s one chance we all get in life.  For all the good we make of it.  God Save The Marks.

Boucher got one thing wrong in that review.  It’s not conventional morality.  Clay isn’t doomed because he’s a crook, or he murdered somebody in cold blood.  He’s doomed because he’s murdered himself in cold blood.  Alternate morality. Something Donald Westlake (and Richard Stark) would become known for in a lot of much better books coming down the pike.

See, one of the undoubted pleasures of crime fiction is that it gives us an escape from our humdrum lives–a chance to immerse ourselves in a world where the rules and guilts and fears that run our lives can take a backseat for a few hundred pages.  Westlake is writing about himself and his fellow crime writers, as much as Clay, when he puts that speech in his mouth about how us law-abiding folks love to read about criminals, identify with them–as long as we don’t see our own pockets being picked.  (They are, of course, we know full well–just don’t let us see it.)

What made The Glass Key special for Hammett, I think, was that he was doing something different from his other books–instead of bringing law-abiding readers into a criminal underworld, he was bringing the criminal underworld into the world of law-abiding readers.  He could have done a better job of it, and one of the things those who followed his lead were doing was trying to better fill in that gray area he created, inhabited by the fixer and his boss–straddling that fence between lawless and lawful.

Westlake did more than that–he had his protagonist suggest the law-abiding world itself is an illusion.  That we’re all crooked, all on the take, all part of a criminal underworld–and as Clay tells the Puerto Rican kid who parks his car for him, and wants to join the Ganolese mob, “It’s not what you think it is, kid.”

I’m guessing some I know who like this book more than I do (and I do, just not as much) are reacting to this honesty, vis a vis dishonesty.  And the escape hatch it gives them.  But they’re missing a crucial point.  Clay is right in a general sense.  We’re all crooks in some sense.  But it’s the specific sense that kills him. (Unless he found that escape hatch.)  The creator of Parker and Dortmunder didn’t damn this early prototype for being a crook.  He damned him for being a tool.

Even if everybody around you is a crook, that doesn’t prove you have to be one–even if you are literally a crook, that doesn’t mean you have to work for bigger ones. You still get a choice, every day, to go a different way.  And you’re responsible for your choices, whether you acknowledge them or not.  The sin is not being a crook, or even an enabler of crooks.  The sin is lying about it.  “I had no choice” is the biggest lie of all.  That’s just stealing from yourself.

Now I said this is the last duplicate key I know of, and in the realm of print fiction, that’s true.  But in the realm of celluloid fiction, there’s one more.  I’ve seen bits and pieces of it on cable, never watched it all the way through.  I’m going to do that now.

And while I do, I’m going to wonder whose sick sense of humor is responsible for the fact that the people crafting this key, imagining yet one more feckless fixer for a boob of a boss were brothers by the name of Coen.  (The ‘h’ is silent anyway).

One more time, I am moved to ask–who writes this stuff?

I only wish Westlake did now.  Holy ghost-writer?  We can but hope.

Leave a comment

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Uncategorized

Reappraisal: Dash and Don

Donald-Westlake-001

It seems to me that there is entirely too little screaming about the work of Dashiell Hammett. My own shrill yaps have been ascending ever since I first found Red Harvest, and from that day the man has been, God help him, my hero; but I talked only yesterday, I forget why, with two of our leading booksy folk, and they had not heard of that volume, nor had they got around to reading its better, The Maltese Falcon.

From Dorothy Parker’s 1931 New Yorker review of The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, entitled, Oh Look–Two Good Books!  She was a poet, you know.  

Hammett was a major writer, for a lot of reasons, one of them being that the texture in his writing comes so very much from himself.  Writing inside an action genre, where subtleties of character and milieu are not primary considerations, he nevertheless was, word by word and sentence by sentence, subtle and many-layered, both allusive and elusive, delicate and aloof among all the smashing fists and crashing guns.

From The Hardboiled Dicks, a lecture given by Donald Westlake at the Smithsonian in 1982, which I’ve quoted from in the past, and probably will again, but you can read the whole thing in The Getaway Car.  Cut out the middleman. 

Well, that was a long break.  I’m still pondering on a problem piece (political), but while that was percolating, and I was crouched forlornly by my mailbox, waiting for somebody to drop a copy of Westlake’s Red Harvest screenplay in it,  I said to myself, “Hey, maybe I should read The Maltese Falcon.  I hear that’s pretty good.”

Yeah.  Never read it.  I started, years ago, but could not get past Spade being a ‘blonde Satan.’  Which he’s not, really.  Well, he gets up to some deviltry, but he has light brown hair.  Light brown isn’t blonde.  What was Hammett thinking?  Probably not that his snarky shamus would be forever linked with some black Dutchman with a lisp, who had just ditched Broadway for Hollywood. (Grofield would not approve.)

I have this thing, where when I read the book a movie I love was based on, the two duel for supremacy in my mind while I read.  Sometimes they fight to a standstill.  Sometimes the movie wins.  Usually, the book triumphs.  This was one of those times.  Huston great, Hammett greater.  I still heard Bogie’s voice when I read Spade’s dialogue, but even that began to fade after a while.

Movies.  They screw with your perceptions of the books.  Damn them anyway.  The good ones in particular.  And none better than Huston’s.  But never mistake the packing material for the contents.  Excelsior.

So I read it, then read some things about it, came to some conclusions, and after banging my head on my desk a number of times at all the things I knew now that I coulda shoulda woulda known back when I started work on this blog, I did still more reading.  I’m all Kindled up now, ready to dig deep.  New worlds to conquer.

See, I mainly just read the Op stories for background.  Having been assigned Red Harvest for a college course eons before, I knew Westlake had taken that as his model for his anti-Op Tim Smith, in Killing Time. It served as the backbone for several of his most interesting books.

Likewise, I read The Thin Man, because Westlake cited it as an influence on the Mitch Tobin mysteries.  But somehow, the other stuff didn’t pull me in.  I didn’t have the right key to open it.  (Glass, of course.)  Why it somehow never occurred to me that Westlake would have learned from everything written by a man I’ve many times described here as his most important literary influence….

Well, you see, we don’t scream enough about Hammett.  Mrs. Parker was right.  We know of him, of course.  We honor and homage him, we review and reference him, we parody and plagiarize him, we anthologize adapt and and assay him, we do guided tours of San Francisco based on him, and we even write lengthy scholarly biographies and other erudite tomes about him, a privilege accorded to precious few pulp writers.  We know of him.  But do we know him?  Not really.  Not most of us.

Westlake did.

And just as Sergio Leone began his career in earnest by copying Kurosawa, almost shot for shot–well Westlake was never that incautious (movie directors can afford lawsuits a lot easier than novelists), and he went out of his way to contradict and revise his mentor, but fact is, a bit of creative copying can teach you things you can’t learn any other way.  It shouldn’t be how you finish, but it’s the only way to begin.

Hammett was a part of Westlake to the very end, but it’s at the start that the influence is most powerful–and, if you’re looking close, obvious. I can see it all so clearly now.  I couldn’t then.

And because by the early 60’s, Westlake was more and more aware that his future was in novels, not short stories, it’s the five Hammett novels–each one different from the last–that we need to put under the magnifying glass now.

Hammett died on January 10th, 1961, which I would think only intensified Mr. Westlake’s   devotion, but he was already on the case.  Just five months earlier, in August, Westlake’s first novel under his own name (also the first he’d want anybody to know he’d written) had gotten a quick complimentary write-up in Criminals At Large, Anthony Boucher’s round-up mystery column in the New York Times.

Brief and glancing as that Boucher review is, Hammett is referenced in it.  As is a novel by Hammett.  That’s what we’re looking at next.  It’s late Hammett, but we’re doing this in Westlake’s order.

Touché, Boucher.  You got it.  Why didn’t I?  Oh right.  Never read the book.  (Or in this case, even watched the movie).  Man in the middle.  That’s me.

Care for a cartoon, while I ratiocinate?

 

12 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: Get Real, Part Last

summer

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.

But the Skin Horse only smiled. “The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

From The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams.  A book we read as children, then comprehend (maybe) as adults.  

“John,” Kelp said, “the next time there’s gonna be money in that place it’s gonna be our money, from England. You wanna go steal your own money?”

“Money from wages,” Dortmunder said, “is not the same as the same money from theft. Money from theft is purer. There’s no indentured servitude on it, no knuckling under to whatever anybody else wants, no obedience. It isn’t yours because you swapped it for your own time and work, it’s yours because you took it.”

“Basically, Dortmunder,” Tiny said, “I agree with you. But there’s an extra little spin on it this time.”

“Because it’s fun,” said the one-note kid.

“Also,” Tiny said, “I agree with Kelp. I want Josie to see this thing. I want to tell you, Dortmunder, I’m impressed by every one of us, and that’s also you. I looked at those guys in that back room, I believed them.”

Dortmunder sat back, appalled. “I don’t know what’s happening here,” he said. “You people have completely forgot who and what you are. You want to go down to that place, day after day, and pretend to be, pretend to be I don’t even know what.”

“Ourselves,” Kelp said.

“You don’t have to pretend to be yourself,” Dortmunder said. “You are yourself.”

“But this is fun,” the damn kid said.

From a book children probably should not read, though they might also think it was fun.

I love John Dortmunder.

I mean, not that way.  I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea here.  Well, nobody’s getting the wrong idea here.  And I’m hardly alone in this.  My blog stats assure me that a whole lot of people out there love this thieving schmuck.

Parker, Westlake’s other most popular series protagonist, is not loved.  Nor does he give a damn if he is or not.  Respect, mingled with envy, would be the default reaction to him.  Mitch Tobin, who had a much shorter run, you empathize with, admire his abstracted acuity–he’s too morose and abrasive to be lovable.

Many other of Westlake’s fictive foils and felons we’ve looked at over the past few years come to mind, vivid memories come with them, but would how many would you want to sip beer or bourbon with?  We’re talking about a yarn spinner who gave the world many a diverting rogue, but Dortmunder is Westlake’s beloved rogue.

And it seems reasonable to say, as many have, that this is because he’s the one who most closely resembles his creator–but is that true?  Westlake was, to all accounts, a warm witty winning fellow in real life, not some crusty curmudgeon.   You watch the few bits of video there are of him online, you see the sunny side, more often than not.  Then again, he knew he had a camera on him when he gave those interviews.

I watched his friends talk about him at The Mysterious Bookstore, at that event held to commemorate the release of The Getaway Car.  No doubt they knew many sides to the man, but the one that came foremost in their thoughts when he was gone was not some gloomy gus, peddling hard luck stories.  Dortmunder is but one surly surrogate for Westlake’s many-faceted persona–it had taken him a lifetime to cover them all.  (Assuming he didn’t have a few more tucked in his back pocket, in case of a quick getaway.)

Much as Dortmunder came after Parker, after Tobin, after Grofield, after Levine, after the first six ‘Nephew’ books, he still has a certain belated primacy.  Sure though I am that most of Westlake’s best novels are not Dortmunders–that if you only know him through Dortmunder, you don’t know him at all–it’s still altogether fitting we finish here.  With a book that is philosophy as much as fiction.

One might argue it’s more successful as philosophy.  True of most of the books he completed in the 21st century.  Like many a great before him, he had outlived his era–to a certain extent, his inspiration went with it.  He must have known that.  Nor was this such a new sensation.  He’d been out of sync with the times for most of his life.  Easier to cope with when you’re young; a trial at any age. The Kelp in him was waning, as Dortmunder waxed prolific.

But there are compensations.  To stand just outside the times you live in can enhance your perspective on them.  You may even get an inkling of things yet to come.  And try–in futility, most often–to sound a warning.  So just once more, let’s listen to what the man has to tell us.

All that’s really left to cover in this book is the most important aspect of it–which is to say, the work.  The gang is doing two jobs here–one is the job they always do, which is to get in somewhere they’re not supposed to be, take stuff they’re not supposed to take, and get back out again without getting caught.

The other job is to pretend to do all that, on camera, to entertain the masses–which, let’s remember, is precisely what they’ve been doing all the time we’ve known them.  We’ve even had multiple filmed versions of them in the past, none of which were at all satisfactory–the Dortmunder of the movies is not Dortmunder at all. Turn a camera on him, he fades away to nothing.  Must that always be true?  I could not say.

But leaving that aside, it’s fair to say that what Doug Fairkeep is doing with them now is, in a sense, the same thing Westlake has been doing with them since 1970. And yet, not the same at all.

So what’s different?  This time they know about it.  I started off with Bishop Berkeley–to be is to be perceived–but I put more stock in The Hawthorne Effect (no relation to Nathaniel), as laid out by Henry A. Landsberger.  To be perceived–while being aware of it–is to be something other than what you were before.  Self-awareness is one thing.  Self-consciousness quite another.

And self-consciousness occurs when you know you’re being watched.  Most of all when you’re playing to a camera.  Playing yourself.  Instead of just being yourself.  Which was hard enough to begin with.

To Donald Westlake, identity is the central element in life, and the central element in identity, for him at least, was work.  What you do shapes everything about you.  He resisted all his life the temptation to take a teaching job when writing gigs were scarce, revenues deficient, because he knew that would change him.

Many if not most of us have jobs that really are just swapping our time and labor for money, but to the extent we’re doing something meaningful to us, we become our jobs.  If not, then we have to seek meaning and identity elsewhere.  (Like on the internet. Uh-oh.)  But some people, against all odds, find or just plain invent jobs that suit them right down to the proverbial T.

And what do reality TV shows about people doing their quirky individualistic jobs do? They corrupt that.  Because all of a sudden, your actual job becomes secondary to the metatextual job of explaining your job while you’re in the process of doing it.  Dramatizing your workplace relationships to the point where you don’t know where the drama ends and the relationship begins.  The image of you doing the job becomes more important than the job itself.  Work is no longer done for its own sake, but rather for the sake of being seen doing it.  To be is to be perceived.

This is normal for entertainers, of course.  That is their work, to be seen working (more true for a stand-up comedian than a third violinist in an orchestra–and who is more likely to have severe personality issues?)  But how about a writer?   Writers entertain (hopefully), but tend to do their jobs in private.

Harlan Ellison challenged that perception–I remember watching him write a short story in the window of a 5th Ave. bookstore.  B. Dalton’s I think–hard to remember–can’t remember the story either.  I know it was 1981, because it was right after the first space shuttle landing, and I asked him about it at the Q&A afterwards–he wasn’t impressed.  Not much of a techie, is Mr. Ellison.

If somebody had asked him to comment on the work he was doing, while he was doing it, tried to turn his work on a piece of fiction into a piece of docu-fiction itself, I’m guessing that somebody would have had a fat lip shortly afterwards.

Ellison’s point was that he could get so deeply into what he was doing, it didn’t matter that he was being eyeballed by hundreds while he did it.  He didn’t need an ivory tower, because his mind was the tower.  Few can claim to be that focused.

Westlake and Ellison respected each other, their backgrounds and work habits were not too dissimilar, but I don’t think you could have gotten Westlake into one of those bookstore windows without pointing a gun at him.  Maybe not even then.  In Westlake’s mind, to be is to be.  To be perceived–incompletely, and too often inaccurately–an unfortunate side effect of being.

To bring another genre writer into the discussion, perhaps you are only truly yourself when nobody can see you?

I was not kidding when I said this book is more about philosophizing than storytelling, and so has the review been, but the story is still interesting.  As they’ve been learning how to play themselves on TV, the Dortmunder Gang have been trying to solve the mystery of Combined Tool.  They believe there is cash stored there for illegal pay-offs to foreign companies.  They’re quite right to think so, as we learn from discussions between Doug Fairkeep and Babe Tuck, when the gang isn’t present.

Doug himself learned about the money a while back when he had to use his status as a TV producer to help a man named Muller, a German producer who had dealings with Get Real’s corporate overlords, get past a police search at the Third Ave. corporate headquarters, with half a million dollars.  Doug told the cops it was fake money for a show, and they believed him.  That’s why, when Dortmunder asked him if there was any cash they could steal, he hesitated a moment before responding in the negative.

So part of the book is the gang going back there, again and again, after closing time. Looking for a way into Combined Tool, which has a suspiciously good alarm system.  As heists go, this is first-rate material–with Andy Kelp doing most of the heavy lifting.

Andy was never considered a first-rate lock man, but seems he’s been upgrading his skills–and given his fascination with electronics and computers, his love of figuring out how they work, how to turn them to his advantage, this makes sense. The more security systems rely on newfangled tech, the better he likes it.  (Also, there isn’t really time to deal with the eccentricities of a Wally Whistler, or a Wilbur Howey.)

Dortmunder, by contrast, could never follow this kind of thing.  He can snip a few wires in an alarm system, but his skills are more rooted in the concrete.  He’s the planner, who works out the general logistics, not the techie stuff.  I’d say he’s Jobs to Kelp’s Woz, but the dynamic isn’t the same.  Usually somebody comes to him with an idea, then he figures out how to make it work.  There is no Jobs, no CEO.  Because this isn’t a company, but a collective of freelancers.  An assembly of autodidacts, if you prefer.

It’s commented here that he’s not the leader of the gang–there is no leader. Whoever has the skill set best suited to the given moment takes the lead, and the others follow.  Creative anarchism.  (Also rather similar to the way some field biologists now think a wolf pack operates).  And because all they care about is getting the answer to their problem–ie, the loot–they’ll listen to anyone who has a good idea.  No seniority system, which has been working out great for Judson.

Their task is complicated greatly by the need to steal from their employers without their employers knowing it.  Not just to get in and back out again, but to do it without leaving a trace, tripping any wires.  So night after night, they go in, poke around, snip wires, and every night they get a bit closer.  Here’s just one exchange from that process.  (Chosen because it demonstrates that Kelp quite certainly does not think of Dortmunder as the boss of him, for all he’s been promoting him like an over-assiduous talent agent all these years).  Kindle, allow me one last outrageously long quote.

“Wires,” decided Kelp.

“You’re right.”

They both had flashlights out now, shining them on the walls and ceiling. Kelp said, “Electricity. Phone. Cable. Security. A cluster of wires.”

Dortmunder pointed his light at the stone side wall of the elevator space. “They gotta do surface-mount. You can’t bury wires in a stone wall. See, like that.” And his light shone on a gray metal duct, an inch square, coming down from above. “That’s where they put in those cameras, to screw us outta the storage space.” “

Well, let’s see.” Kelp turned the other way, looking at the side wall where it came close to the front of the building. “There we go.”

His light showed another gray duct, a little larger, coming out of that side wall, very low and almost to the front. The duct emerged, made a left turn to go downward, then another left and headed off toward the door they’d come in.

Kelp called, “Tiny! You see that duct? I’m shining the light on it.”

“I got it.”

“Find where it goes, I’ll be right down.”

Dortmunder said, “And what am I doing?”

“Same as last time. Comere.”

They went over to the impregnable door, and Kelp withdrew from one of the rear pockets of his jacket the stethoscope and earphone gizmo. As Dortmunder watched, he bent to the door, listening here, listening there, then saying, “Hah.”

“You got it.”

“We know the thing has to be alarmed,” Kelp said, “and here it is. Only this time I want it to stop.”

“Okay.”

“Give me a couple minutes to get set,” Kelp said, “then you listen, and you tell me when it switches off.” He tapped a fingertip on the appropriate spot on the door. “Right there.”

“Done.”

Kelp went away down the ladder, and Dortmunder experimentally listened to the door’s faint hum for a minute, then, tiring of that, walked around in this blank, supremely uninteresting area until Kelp, from far away at the ground floor rear, yelled, “John!” “

Yar!”

“Start listening!”

“You got it.” Bending to his work, Dortmunder listened through the gizmo to the humming of the door. It was a very soothing kind of hum, really, especially when you positioned yourself so your back could be comfortable. It was a non-threatening hum, an encouraging hum, faint but unending, assuring you that everything was going to be all right, all your troubles were over, you’d just sail along now on the calm sea of this hum, no nasty sur—

“JOHN! WHAT THE HELL’S THE MATTER WITH YOU?”

The scream, about an inch from his non-gizmo ear, was so loud and unexpected he drove his head into the door to get away from it, and the door bounced his head back into the scream with a new ache in it. Staring upward, he saw what appeared to be Kelp’s evil twin, face twisted into a Kabuki mask of rage. “What? What?”

“Can’t you hear anything?”

“The hum.” Dortmunder straightened, pulled the earphone out of his unassaulted ear, assembled the tatters of his dignity about himself, and said, “You wanted me to listen to the hum, I listened to the hum.”

Once Kelp realizes the hum never stopped (meaning he hasn’t figured out the alarm) he apologizes.  Dortmunder accepts.  Graciously, if a bit stiffly.

Why is this work so good to watch?  Because they don’t know we’re watching them, and are therefore living and working and dealing with their personality clashes and minor misunderstandings entirely in the moment.  This, in a nutshell, is fiction.  (And life, or it ought to be.)

Reality TV, in a nutshell, is a hybrid of reality and fiction, where we tell ourselves “This is more interesting because it’s really happening” but then we stop and think “But it’s less interesting because they know we’re watching them, so nobody is being real–and it’s still basically scripted.  There’s a strict formula they have to follow, because these people don’t dare be 100% themselves in front of an audience of millions.  They’re just playing cutesy versions of themselves. It’s a lot more predictable than fiction.”

I guess you could argue that there are formulas we follow in unscripted reality as well, but that’s because we’re creatures of habit, slaves to routine–patterns from which we seek temporary escape.  Great fiction provides that escape, distills reality, ferments it, transforms it into something revelatory.

Documentaries do that in a different way, simpler, more direct–but perhaps more deceptive as well (all the way back to Robert Flaherty).  Reality TV takes both approaches, mashes them together, and corrupts them to make half-hour blocks of entertainment to sell soap.  But we watch it.  Because it’s fun!  Vérité be damned, we crave variety.

(And let it be said, at least the people on the better Reality TV shows aren’t all airbrushed airhead aquiline actors, seemingly cultivated in tanks in top secret studio-owned warehouses. Yeah, talking about you, Matt Damon.  Won’t even mention Keanu.  Too obvious.  Reality TV is our punishment for allowing fiction, especially in its filmed variant, to be drained not just of reality, but humanity.  The corporations are to blame for both poisons, but so are we for lapping them up.)

The gang isn’t going to be watching these shows–but they can’t very well help watching themselves, the daily rushes, once they’re the subject.  They’re trained how to play to the camera, how to hit their marks, how to present themselves to the world, and it starts out as just a way to be in that building so as to pillage it, and failing in that, at least to get their 20g a man payout.

And see, the people making this show around them are solid pros  in their own field–and what’s their job?  To make you look good doing your job.  Which makes them look good at their jobs.  One hand jacking off the other.   Which doesn’t even make any sense, but there you are.

The exchange you see up top is Dortmunder, tied to the mast you might say, berating his fellow sailors for falling under this siren’s spell.  This is not who they are.  If there was ever a profession that positively requires the complete absence of cameras and microphones–to the point of disabling them where they are found–it is theirs. For them, to be is not to be perceived.  To be perceived is to shortly afterwards be perceiving iron bars, bad food, and undesirable neighbors for ten to twenty.

They shouldn’t be pretending to take stuff that isn’t theirs to get paid by some dodgy foreign production company (as it happens, Mr. Muller’s company).  They should be taking what’s rightfully theirs, theirs because they took it.  That’s how they get real.

They’re not convinced the show is corrupting them, but he still strikes that professional chord in each–this acting thing is a nice diversion and all.  It’s not what they do.  Maybe there’s money waiting for them in Combined Tool and maybe there isn’t, but either way, they gots to know.  To thine own self be true.

Then comes the whole thing with Babe Tuck accusing them of stealing cars that Murch actually stole without telling them, and they walk out in a  huff, because really.  Doug seeks them out at the real OJ, where all the usual hijinks are transpiring, without any cameras to record them for posterity.

The regulars discuss this new scam they’ve been hearing about called ‘the internet.’  You have to buy some kind of adding machine to use it.  There’s also an English-deficient tourist, who speaks in keyboard symbols, who wants to exchange some strange foreign currency for beer, and won’t believe Rollo when he says they only speak dollars.  Tiny finally tells the guy “What you want to do is, when in Rome, don’t be Greek.”  Well, maybe if it’s a diner.

The regulars are now asking themselves if while you’re looking at the internet, it looks back at you.  Kelp, for what I think is the first and only time in the series weighs in, telling what is for him a cautionary tale of a woman who worked for the Apple Store, whose computer was stolen, but she knew how to track it down in cyberspace, and then she used it to take pictures of the people who stole it, and then she called the cops.  Andy says the moral of that story is never commit a crime anywhere near the internet.  Um–but isn’t the internet everywhere?  Andy?  Oh never mind, they’re back into the backroom.  The internet is definitely not there.

But Doug is, and that’s even worse.  He doesn’t belong in the real OJ.  They shut the door in his face.  But he persists.  The corporate overlords love the new heist show.  They want to go ahead with it.  Please, please come back!  They’re kind of meh about it.  The kid says they already cast a professional actor as one of the gang, to spy on them–why not cast the whole gang that way?  Doug says that’s not how reality works.  John says “Why not?  How real is reality anyway?”  That is the question, all right.

But they come back.  Because money.  And before long, even Dortmunder is starting to discuss with Kelp about how natural and fluid they are on camera.  Not like Babe Tuck, who did a bit part in one scene.  Very stiff.  But that’s okay, they can carry him.  They’re professionals.  They better pull this job fast, before it pulls them.

So they pull the job.  The cash is there, just like they thought.  So is an irate Asian man with a Glock, but Kelp and a nine inch cast iron skillet attend to that.  Philosophy aside, reality still hurts when you get hit upside the head with it.  Leaves a bump that feels pretty real as well when you wake up.

To Dortmunder (and not the one note kid, whose deductive skills fail him this time) goes the honor of finding the hidey-hole in this apartment inside Combined Tool–a compartment behind a dishwasher in the kitchen.  This almost makes up for the time he nearly crippled himself hiding in a dishwasher in Good Behavior, and they found him anyway.  I think the moral here is that dishwashers are not good hiding places.

There’s a ton of cash in there.  Stacked in such a haphazard way as to make clear that not even the people who put it there know how much there is.  The idea is, their foreign guests (like the Asian guy) stay the night there, take what they came for, then go back home.  The pile gets diminished, then replenished, then diminished again.  They can’t keep accounts, get receipts, because it’s black money.

So not only can’t the Get Real people report it stolen, they won’t even know that it was.  They’ll just assume somebody (they will, of course, suspect Dortmunder & Co., but what of it?) broke in, clobbered their guest, looked around for the money, didn’t find it, left.  Because the gang didn’t take all of the cash, just a lot of it.  $162,450, is the final count–$32,490 for each string member.

“I begin to believe,” Dortmunder said, “that a jinx that has dogged my days for a long long time has finally broken.”  He smiles.  And we frown–hasn’t he had bigger scores in the past?   The Avalon Bank Tower heist.  The epic fleecing of Max Fairbanks. Why is this better?  Because it’s repeatable.  They can keep going back for more.   As long as they work there, they’ve got the perfect alibi to really work there.

Except they don’t work there anymore.  Corporate moves in mysterious ways.  Monopole loved the show–sent it up to the next rung in the ladder–who loved it too–so they sent it up to TUI–who said it glorified criminals.  They can’t be associated with crime!

(Final sidebar: This came up in the comments section last time, might as well mention it again.  Westlake was still thinking about Trump.  Who had recently started his own reality show about what he did at work, which seemed to consist mainly of insulting and firing people, then rehiring them, then insulting and firing them again, and there was some other stuff he did off-camera, when he was really being real. I doubt Westlake was a regular viewer, but he knew about it.

Doug Fairkeep’s name is too similar to that of Max Fairbanks to be a coincidence, and he lives in a Trump apartment building.  TUI, Fairbanks’ company, is one of the owners of Get Real.  And it’s TUI that cancels the show.  I don’t think we need grieve too much that Mr. Westlake didn’t make it to 2016.  Much as his insights may be missed.)

So with The Stand now canceled, and The Gang’s All Here (with all its variant titles) stillborn, it’s time to just fold the Get Real production tent.  Only Doug and Babe keep their jobs.  Everybody else is fired.  The show is canceled.  Shut it down.

Just in time, too.  They’re filming a scene for the show when Babe comes with the good bad news.  Dortmunder’s self-consciousness in front of the camera has vanished, and he’s talking in clichés, like an off-the-rack TV crook.  “There’s too much tunnel traffic around that place.  You can’t keep a getaway car hanging around there.”

Like himself, but not himself.  Just like the others.  They’re being digested whole in Leviathan’s belly.  Then it vomits them out again, like the whale in Pinocchio.  Bit off more than you could chew this time, eh tough guy?  You can dish it out but you can’t take it!

Marcy is so happy.  This is her script they’re reading, that nobody is allowed to call a script, and she’s a real writer now, though she can’t call herself that on her resumé.  The gang really likes her, she’s worked hard to create characters for them to play.  Then Babe comes in, with orders from Corporate, and she’s canned.  Now she’s an unemployed–um–whatever it was.

Dortmunder and the gang get paid off–only half what they were promised, but that’s only fair, since they didn’t finish filming season one.  10k a hood, I mean head.  Plus they got some money upfront.  Plus Stan is going to take a lot more cars from that garage (Max will be so proud).  Plus they got the money from the dishwasher.  Plus they’re going to go back next week and clean it out.  (Perhaps Mr. Westlake’s final implicit pun.)

“This is a little too much like wages,” Dortmunder thinks.  Already snapping back to his old self.  You can talk about that irksome Irishman Bishop Berkeley all you like, but it was that savage Scotsman, David Hume, who said that however impossible it may be to prove that reality is real, it’s such a damned persuasive, pervasive, and downright invasive thing, going on all the time, all around you, whether you notice or not (and no commercials!) that after a while (if you’re not stark raving mad), you just kind of give in and go along with it.  It’s a living.  We suppose.

Dortmunder and Kelp leave the building together, and they see Marcy, looking disconsolate.  Dortmunder feels bad for her.  She was a good writer, whether they called her that or not.  She did her best to help them, mere hireling that she was–she had something.  Maybe they could help her, give her some of their cash.  “There’s an idea,” says Kelp.  He doesn’t stop walking.  Disappears around the corner.  Dortmunder hesitates, just a moment, then says “Oh, all right” and follows him.

John, stop.  Wait.  Come back, John.  Please come back.  You can’t leave us.  We love you. John?

Gone.

Just like the man who first made him real.  I guess, if you consider Dortmunder the Ultimate Nephew, that would make Westlake his Uncle–right?  He modeled Dortmunder after an earlier (and much grimmer) toy in his workshop, but the more the craftsman worked on his new toy, the more he became his own thing, his own reality, his own unique expression of things no other character in all of fiction could ever say quite the same way.

But if you’ve read Margery Williams’ forty-four page masterpiece, you know that being real doesn’t happen all at once.  The Velveteen Rabbit thinks he’s real when the boy who loves him says that he is, but that’s just the first stage.  There still has to be a fairy in the mix to complete the nursery magic, and send him out to play with the other rabbits.  And that’s us, get it?  We’re the fairies.  Don’t get wise, I’m being real here.

Fictional characters, from Gilgamesh to Gatsby, from Odysseus to the Odd Couple, from Micawber to McGuyver, from Hamlet to Homer (woo-hoo!), from Beowulf to Babe (the other one), all began in the minds of creators (sometimes many), who loved them, and thereby imbued them with pieces of their souls–but it’s when that character is appreciated by audiences for generations after the creator is gone, that he/she/it gains lasting reality.  Transcendent reality.  And once you’re real like that, you can never be unreal again.  (I’m not holding out much hope for McGuyver, but maybe he can rig something out of a paper clip and some chewing gum that’ll work just as well).

Dortmunder, along with Westlake’s other creations, is still in the early stages of that long process of becoming.  I like to think I’ve hastened it along with this blog, if just in a small way.  The best way is to read the books.  Over and over.  Until the pages are tattered and stained and dog-eared, and the spine is broken, and the cover is coming loose, and this doesn’t really work with an ebook, does it?  Which is what I re-read Get Real on.  Well, let it get stained and tattered in your mind.  And share it with someone who loves you.  Then you’ll be real too.

Anyway, the next book in our queue is–what?  No more?  Well then.  Guess I’d best be headed around the corner myself.  I appreciate you guys coming here to read all this crap I’ve typed when I was supposed to be doing my  job.  It’s been real.  You know?  Open bar at the OJ.  Bourbon’s on me.  Tell Rollo Fred sent you.

PS: I made this little video of myself, with my computer, saying a few parting words.  Uploaded it to YouTube.  You can view it here.

You wish. See you next week. (I wish.)

26 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder, John Dortmunder novels